The Science and Practice of Staying Present Through Difficult Times

Research suggests that when we turn towards pain and discomfort, we can experience less of it. Plus — a guided meditation for being mindful when things get tough.

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Research into mindfulness has shown the benefits of staying present, and of gently turning towards difficulty. Mindfulness-based relapse prevention (MBRP) trains people with addictive habits to manage their cravings mindfully by staying present to the sensations of craving, rather than trying to distract from them, avoid them or defeat them.

The Science of Staying Present

In a large trial of MBRP, mindfulness-trained patients drank and used drugs significantly less than those who were treated with cognitive-behavioural approaches, and a control group who attended twelve-step and psycho-education groups. The authors of the study conclude that mindfulness was the most successful approach, especially over the longer term, because it enabled patients to “monitor and skilfully cope with discomfort associated with craving or negative affect.” A similar study with smokers found that mindfulness training was more than five times as effective as a standard smoking cessation programme, as measured by abstinence from cigarettes after four months (31 per cent compared to 6 per cent). Another study has suggested that mindful people are more able to tolerate their own distress, rather than react in harmful ways.

There are benefits to staying present with physical, as well as emotional, discomfort. Fadel Zeidan and colleagues suggest that meditation practice is associated with brain changes that indicate and reflect shifts in people’s experience of, and relationship with, pain. Meditators show decreased activity in the primary somatosensory cortex (an area of the brain involved in registering pain) and increased activity in three areas involved in the regulation of pain—the anterior insula, the anterior cingulate cortex and the pre-frontal cortex. When gently turning towards pain, people report that they experience less of it, and their resistance usually decreases. They may not get so caught up in the negative stories and evasive reactions that tend to accompany pain but do nothing to stop it (and, indeed, may increase the mind’s perception of it). This may be why people with chronic conditions have reported reductions in pain after training in mindfulness, even though they still suffer from the illness.

When gently turning towards pain, people report that they experience less of it, and their resistance usually decreases.

As far back as 1971, Robert Wallace and Herbert Benson found that meditation reduced activity in the sympathetic nervous system, which controls the “fight or flight” reaction. More recently, attending a mindfulness course has been shown to reduce activity and grey matter volume in the amygdala—a key indicator of how strongly this reaction is triggered. With mindfulness training also comes a thickening in parts of the pre-frontal cortex—the region directly behind the forehead—which may be connected to a strengthening of the body’s capacity to regulate stress. Connections between the amygdala and other parts of the brain weaken after mindfulness training.

One part of the pre-frontal cortex associated with stress regulation is the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). Poor ACC function tends to correlate with impulsive behaviour and mental inflexibility—which are both common among people who are under stress. Experienced meditators display more activity in the ACC, and better stress regulation. The capacity to self- manage during difficult situations may be trainable at a very young age. One study that tracked a group of pre-school children who attended a mindfulness programme over six months found that they were less impulsive (more able to regulate) than a group of children who did not receive the training.

The Benefits of Leaning Into Discomfort

Just the act of describing unpleasant experiences mindfully can have a positive effect on stress levels. In one study, people with a fear of spiders were asked to walk towards and try to touch a live tarantula. Some were invited to reassure themselves as they approached the spider, while others were advised to distract themselves from what they were trying to do. A third group was encouraged to acknowledge and turn towards their fear, saying something like: “I am frightened by the big ugly spider.” The members of this third group—those who openly stayed present to their fear— got closest to the tarantula, felt least upset by the experience, and had the least sweaty palms.

Staying present to difficulties seems to have a significant impact on well-being. In Matt Killingsworth’s studies of wandering minds, he has found that people are less happy when their minds are distracted, even when they are engaged in an activity that we would usually describe as unpleasant. So, for instance, even though most people are not keen on commuting, they tend to be happier if their minds turn towards the experience of the journey rather than wander away from it. Other studies have suggested that setting oneself the goal of avoiding stress increases the long-term risk of depression. By contrast, if we view stress as a normal, helpful indicator—something we can handle and from which we can learn—rather than as something to eliminate, we are more likely to experience good health and emotional well-being.

Try This 15-Minute Guided Mindfulness Meditation

A Practice for Turning Toward Difficulty

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When you’ve established a stable foundation with mindfulness of breath and body you can experiment with turning towards difficulty.

Sometimes our experience is painful and difficult. And there may be little or nothing we can do about the arising of the pain or difficulty. In these cases, we may be able to work with what’s happening skillfully by exploring our relationship to it. Most of us have a habitual pattern of turning away from problems or trying to get rid of unpleasant events. Unfortunately this often seems to increase our sense of stress, because if pain is already present, you can’t get rid of it by trying to run away from it. In mindfulness practice we gently experiment with reversing this habit by turning gently towards difficult experiences that come up in our meditation.

This practice is usually best done in small doses at first. Preferably working with difficulties that aren’t likely to be overwhelming. It’s important to remember that you’re in charge of how you undertake this experiment. You can return to mindfulness of breathing as an anchor at any time or let go of this practice for a while if you need to, being kind to yourself.

  1. Begin by settling into a dignified sitting posture. Upright, steady, grounded. Feeling the feet on the floor, bottom on the chair, spine erect shoulders dropped. Feel a sense of openness at the chest, muscles un-tensed, centered, feeling the breath in the belly. Attuning attention to sensations of the breath as it moves in and out. Being with the breath. Being in the body.
  2. And now expanding awareness to experience throughout the body. Being in the present moment with the body. Noticing what you find and allowing what’s here to be here. Especially noticing sensations in the body that are more unpleasant and difficult to be with. Maybe there’s an aching, throbbing, churning, or a tightening somewhere. There may be a physical or a more emotional tone to the sensations. If it feels helpful to label this for yourself, you could mentally say some words describing the experience: anger, pain, or restlessness, for example. Perhaps also noticing where in the body you’re feeling these tones of sensation and emotion.
  3. Now inviting you to experiment with gently taking your attention towards a region of more intense sensation. Turning towards the intensity. Being interested in the qualities of and changes in sensation from moment to moment. What increases or decreases in intensity are there? What shifts in location or texture? As best you can, staying with the direct experience of sensation and letting any thoughts about what’s happening or urges and impulses to react be held in kindly awareness in the background of the mind. Letting go of any need to try and get any kind of result here or for anything to have to change. Just gently turning towards what’s going on. And noticing what happens without an agenda. Riding the waves of experience, moment by moment.
  4. If you like you could offer a sense of breathing with the sensations, feeling them together with the rising and falling of the breath. Breathing in with sensations, breathing out with sensations.
  5. Noticing: are there any impulses to resist or pull away? Perhaps you find your attention drawn into thoughts. Rumination maybe or distraction. Maybe you find your thoughts trying to make sense of the difficulty or problem solving it or judge the success or failure of the practice by whether the intensity decreases or changes. As best you can, seeing if you can include these reactions in your noticing, allowing space for them to be experienced along with the sensations themselves—without having to buy into them or reject them.
  6. If it feels too much to be doing this it’s always okay to continue with or return to mindfulness of breathing or body or to stop practicing for a time. Gentleness is paramount here and there are no right or wrong things to happen when you try this. Just being interested in what does happen when you take your attention into a region of difficulty, moving towards it, letting the experience be observed and awareness without needing to do anything else.
  7. And experimenting now if this feels okay for you with breathing into the region of intensity. Opening further to the sensations on the in-breath and having a sense of softening on the out-breath, of letting go. This isn’t to try and change what’s happening but rather to offer a skillful relationship to it. Flowing with it. Offering space to it, allowing it. Breathing into the sensations on the in-breath, breathing out from them on the out-breath, softening, letting be, allowing.
  8. Staying with the intensity only for as long as feels manageable for you right now. If you like you can gently move your attention away from and then back towards the intensity noticing what happens each time you work with redirecting your attention in and out. Inviting you to be like a scientist undertaking a laboratory experiment. Being interested in what happens rather than seeking a particular outcome. Coming back to mindfulness of breath or body as and when that feels right for you.
This post was adapted from Into The Heart of Mindfulness, by Ed Halliwell, published by Piatkus). Download a set of 14 guided audio meditation practices from Ed’s books here.